Coming to terms with Iraq

Artbeat

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By Doug Deuchler

Contributing Reporter

In addition to offering all-new seating in their auditorium, Berwyn's 16th Street Theater has currently opened a powerful three-part play called Harbur Gate. It's the Midwest premiere of a bold, stirring, military story by Kathleen Cahill that contains both humor and tragedy. This powerful work dramatizes three different pairs of American veterans fighting in Iraq in the last decade.

 All three sections of this unique play, set at different times in different places, are interconnected by one single explosive event. Six soldiers, in pairs featuring a male and a female, appear in each of the sequences.

 Ann Filmer's direction is smooth yet gripping. The acting is excellent. 

 The characters examine how those who have experienced horrific wartime wounds, physical as well as emotional, can go on. 

 It's a diverse group, ethnically and sexually. But in each scene there is intense conflict, in both gender roles and sexual tension.

 In the first sequence, which takes place in an American apartment, a male and a female Army medic, played by Laurence Stepney and Arti Ishak, are about to receive Purple Hearts from the Army for being wounded in battle. They are roommates who were involved in a convoy explosion in the northern desert of Iraq. The male is a cross-dresser who effortlessly slides into show tunes; the woman is lesbian who continues to mourn for a lost female comrade. There are very funny moments in the tight dialogue, but each character continues to suffer from the lingering effects of their trauma. They have both been wounded in various ways. Their pain is ongoing.

 The middle story, the only part of the play actually set in Iraq on the night of the incident, is grippingly intense as two soldiers travel through the desert in pitch darkness in a convoy. They are en route to Mosul on a seemingly deserted road from the U.S. base on the Iraqi/Turkish border. The experienced driver, played by Stephanie Shum, has a running argument on the road with a younger, sexist Marine, Felipe Carrasco, who is not convinced women should be soldiers and gripes about being with a female driver. He verbalizes common misperceptions about gender in the military.

 In the third episode, a female veteran suffering from PTSD, played by Debby Banos, finds comfort when she meets a blind painter in the park (Jay Worthington). Both have suffered greatly in the war. Part of the artist's inspiration comes from a 19th-century painting by Winslow Homer showing a Civil War veteran harvesting golden wheat with a scythe, demonstrating the transformative power of art.

 Playwright Cahill, as she explained in a post-curtain, "talk-back," question-and-answer session with the audience, was partially inspired to write her play by sitting in on therapy sessions at a V.A. hospital for female veterans. Many of the participants in these support groups had experienced military sexual trauma. At the time Cahill was beginning to write her play, there was a push for "gender neutrality" in battle — allowing women soldiers to go into combat.

 Harbur Gate runs about 90 minutes with no intermissions separating the three stories.

 This riveting production is technically exceptional — tightly directed with sharp performances. The scenic design, which quickly shifts between sequences, is by Nicholas Schwartz. The original music and sound design is by Barry Bennett. Benjamin L. White designed the lighting, which is especially intense in the second story, the convoy episode. Tony Churchill created the projections that provide the sense of movement and heighten the tension. Rachel Sypniewski did the costumes.

Assistant directors are Kristina McCloskey and Juan Munoz.

I'll admit I don't often seek out war stories. But when I've seen a well-written, gripping play like this one, it stays with me for a while. This work has a lot to say. 

Running Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m., through Feb. 17. $22; $18, low-income and military. Part of Oak Park Theater Month, Thursday and Friday, Feb. 1 and 2, tickets are $15 (promo code OPTM18). Tickets: 16thstreettheater.org, 708-795-6704. 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn.

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